What happens when you show up to take a tennis lesson? Typically the pro will ask you what you want to work on. Being eager to improve your game you tell the coach that your backhand was off in your last league match. “Can you help me figure out what I am doing wrong with my backhand?”, you plead while secretly hoping that this lesson will finally give you a backhand that will strike fear in your opponent.
Similar conversations like this occur in tennis lessons all the time.
But let’s stand back and ask ourselves what is typically missing in our approach to improving our game that may also be a contributing factor to our problems with our backhand or whatever shot or aspect of our game that we are dissatisfied with and desire to improve.
The answer is that we solely focus on improving our game by concentrating on strokes (on-task) or strategy rather than being more comprehensive and asking what can we do to improve our performance when we are “off-task” as well.
When we learn to use off-task time to enhance on-task performance we are now playing optimal tennis.
Let’s define “on-task” and “off-task” time. When you are on-task in a tennis match you are actively involved in playing the point, you are starting your ritual to serve or receive or you are executing a shot or positioning yourself to react to your opponents shot. When the point is over you are now off-task. A match flows from on-task to off-task to on-task to off-task over and over again until the match is completed.
The space or time between playing points is referred to as between points and this time is regulated by the rules of the game. We have 25 seconds between points to resume play and 90 seconds on change overs. The time between points and during change over is considered off-task time.
It may seem counter intuitive but we spend more time off-task during a tennis match than on-task.
This past weekend I was fortunate enough to watch the Nadal vs. Mannarino match in the fourth round of the 2022 Australian Open. We were enthralled with the level of play both players exhibited throughout the first set which ended in an amazing tie breaker, which became an instant classic.
The tie breaker lasted 28 minutes and 40 seconds. They played a total of 30 points during the tiebreak and because it was a tiebreaker there was no change over, just a side change.
Dr. Berger decided to record the amount of time that the players were on-task during the tiebreaker. He started the stop watch the moment a player stepped up to the service line and began his service ritual (on-task), and stopped the timer when the point ended (off-task). Guess how much time these two great players were on-task?
Here’s the answer: They were on-task for 12 minutes and 58 seconds out of 28 minutes and 40 seconds. So they were on-task 44% of the time. This means they were off-task for 15 minutes and 42 seconds or 56% of the time. Here’s another interesting statistic, the average amount of time there were on-task during the tiebreak was 25 seconds whereas they were off-task for an average of 32 seconds per point.
Off-task time was greater than on-task time. This is typical of any match, we spend more time off-task during a match than on-task.
Given the amount of time spent off-task the question becomes how can we best use this time to enhance our performance? It’s important to note that if we don’t use it to enhance our performance we will do things that will diminish our performance. In other words we will likely sabotage ourselves.
The process that will help enhance performance is between point psychology.
Between Point Psychology
It is a psychological law that where we focus is where our energy goes. For instance, if I begin my serve by telling myself “Don't double fault!”, then I am much more likely to double fault. You see the brain doesn’t process negative commands. It only registers “double fault.” When this happens we are focusing on cues (don’t double fault) that are task (serve) irrelevant. We do it all the time. We call this choking. Choking is caused by focusing on cues that are task irrelevant.
So, if our focus determines where our energy goes we want to direct our attention to cues that are performance enhancing.
Several coaches have suggested ways to use off-task time to enhance performance. It is beyond the scope of this article to review and compare these different approaches, but I will say this much there is value to each and every one of them. My personal preference is the Three R’s approach.
Off-task time is divided into 3 segments. When we go off-task we initiate the Three R sequence:
R1 – Release
R2 – Review
R3 - Reset
The first, R1, is very important because it closes the door on what just happened so we can open the door to what’s next. Release brings closure to the last point. It prevents a contamination of what’s coming next.
Carrying unfinished business forward to the next point interferes with performance. It keeps us stuck in the past, thinking about what we should have done. You’ve likely experienced this at some point. You miss a shot that you think you should have made, you beat yourself up over it, and before you know it you’ve lost the next several points.
Optimal tennis requires all hands on deck. It requires that we bring our full awareness and focus to the task at hand. R1 keeps us grounded in being right here, right now.
This segment is usually very short, a couple of seconds at the most (Remember we have 25 seconds between points and 90 seconds on changeovers).
Any comment that helps you let go of what just happened is a good candidate. For example, if your opponent hit a great shot, acknowledging the shot verbally, “great shot” or non-verbally by applauding with your racket is an effective release.
If you made an unforced error you can say something to yourself like, “It’s OK - let it go - It’s just one point, we aren’t going to play a perfect match.” Another great release is to pump yourself up and say, “Come on, stay focused.”
Letting frustration out with a sound can also go a long way in freeing yourself from the last point. Encouraging yourself if you hit a good shot by saying “great shot - let’s go” is also appropriate.
But we do have a cautionary note, don’t put yourself down or put your opponent down. This creates a negative energy and will diminish performance for most people.
After R1 we seamlessly transition into R2, the review phase of the between point process. This segment accounts for most of the remaining time between, we review for approximately 10 to 15 seconds between points and extend the time of the review during change overs.
R2 is the time to take stock of how we are playing and what we are feeling. We encourage you to do a quick scan of the following areas:
1) your energy level
2) your emotions
3) what Jim Klein refers to as the “work” of tennis which involves four areas of focus.
When you assess your energy level you are checking to see if you are in your optimal zone for playing. If you are too pumped up and you are playing too fast, you need to calm down and slow down. If your energy is low and you are lackadaisical and sluggish, you need to pump up.
Emotionally keep an eye out for anxiety. Anxiety indicates that you are projecting a catastrophic outcome (losing the match) into the future. If you are anxious you need to quiet your mind and calm your heart. Slowing down your breathing is very helpful in this regard. Bringing your attention to things you perceive in the present moment can also help you relieve your anxiety.
If you are present and playing with a relaxed intensity great. Note that and move on. We call this process self-regulation.
The last thing to review is how you are playing.
To tie together what I am talking about regarding this second stage in between point psychology I propose we also focus our review on what I like to call the “work” of tennis:
Match: This area concerns two aspects of playing tennis: strategy and tactics. Strategy and tactics often get confused because they sound very much the same. But they are not. Strategy is the understanding of what your opponent’s weaknesses are. Tactics are the ability to exploit those weaknesses.
For example, if you determine the best strategy is based on your observation that your opponent has a weak backhand and doesn’t like going forward to net, you need to employ certain tactics to exploit these weaknesses.
Your tactics would involve serving 80% of the time to their backhand. When returning, you would attempt to aim your returns to their backhand as often as possible and look for opportunities to hit a short ball to bring them forward. This is how we combine strategy and tactics.
Are you using what you have learned to develop a strategy? Are you employing the correct tactics? Never hesitate to change a losing strategy or experiment with different tactics.
Movement: Footwork is simpler. It involves the ability to arrive to the ball in the best position possible so your racket work is not compromised. Many club players do more adjusting with their racket than they do their feet. Ideally your feet should position you to the ball so your racket needs to do very little adjusting. There are three main stances when arriving to strike the ball. The neutral stance, open stance and closed stance. Each one is critical and determining which one to use takes understanding and practice. But here is a hint, the open stance is used more often than the other two combined.
So how well are you moving to the ball?
Racket: This is the ability to use the simplest swing with the most efficient result. A player should have the least amount of moving parts in their swing. The simpler and more efficient your stroke the more it will produce the results you desire and the more accurate your shotes will be. The simpler the mechanics of your stroke the more it will hold up when you are anxious. Good racket awareness will help you execute and exploit strategy and tactics.
Are you keeping your strokes simple and efficient?
Eyes: Last but not least, and one of the most difficult of the four, is paying attention to where your eyes are tracking. Focusing your eyes on the right thing to track and keeping them fixed while striking the ball are essential to effective performance. When your eyes look across the net before the ball crosses the net your chances of executing a good shot decreases drastically.
The problem is that players are very eager to see how well they have hit their shot before they have actually make contact with the ball. When our eyes track early our head and racket head shift through the hitting zone which reduces the chance of success.
If you have a bat, gold club or tennis racket in your hand hitting an incoming or stationary ball your eyes and head must remain still through the hitting zone for optimal success.
I have often said over thirty-five years of teaching, if I could have one magic tennis wish for all players to instantly raise everyone’s level of play it would be the wish that all players could keep their head still when hitting the ball. The most confident players do not need to see where they are hitting the ball before the ball is struck.
Are you keeping your head still?
R3 is about resetting. We re-focus our energy. We transition from being off-task back to on-task. We start this process by initiating our service ritual or service return ritual. This means you need a consistent ritual for both the serve and service return. If you don’t have one, develop one. Your ritual brings you back to the task at hand. It centers you, you reset, and focuses your attention and energy on the serve or return.
Using the between point psychology will help you play optimal tennis. Remember practice makes permanent, not perfect. Practice using the between point psychology during your tennis lessons, hitting with a friend or in drill session workouts. Practice in the same way you want to play. And most important, have fun!
Dr. Allen Berger received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of California, Davis. He received his USPTA Elite Pro Certification in 2005 and was the architect of the very popular Elite Tennis Summer Camp for Juniors at UC Santa Barbara. This summer, he and Jim Klein will be running their Elite Tennis Camp. Klein, co-owner of Doylestown Tennis Club is a Vic Braden trained teaching pro for the past 37 years. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.